[view from the staff break room at NMAI; photo by T. Winch]
After making my living for many years as a musician and
free-lance writer/editor, I got a job with the Smithsonian in 1985, spending
the last 17 years (until retiring on 30 April) at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington.
[south side of NMAI; photo by T. Winch]
Though I did not become an expert in Native literature, over the years I became familiar with some of the Indian world’s leading writers. Kiowa novelist and poet N. Scott Momaday, who won a Pulitzer in 1969 for House Made of Dawn, was a not infrequent visitor to the museum. Our excellent Native Writers Series brought many other luminaries to the museum, including Leslie Marmon Silko, Joy Harjo, Gerald Vizenor, Luci Tapahonso, songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie, Susan Power, and the incomparable and alluring Louise Erdrich. Among my personal favorites were two young poets—M.L. Smoker and Sherwin Bitsui, rising stars in the Native literary firmament. In 2007, I coproduced a CD of contemporary Native writers for the museum called Pulling Down the Clouds, which I believe is the only such recording out there. My favorite piece from the CD is “How To Make Good Baked Salmon from the River” by Nora Marks Dauenhauen [Download How To Make Good Baked Salmon]. And I don’t even eat seafood.
But today I want to shine the spotlight on Sherman
Alexie (left). Not that he needs the attention—Sherman
Let me backpedal for a moment. In his 1987 introduction to Harper’s Anthology of Twentieth-Century Native American Poetry, Brian Swann writes, “The Native American poet seems to work from a sense of social responsibility to the group as much as from an intense individuality.” While Sherman's
Back to Face. Villanelles. Poems with footnotes, which themselves have footnotes. Poems shape-shifting into prose and back again. The personal, political, sexual, physical, spiritual, historical, racial—you get it all in this one amazing book. Some poems, some attitudes, will be irritating to readers, Indian and non. But the energy, velocity, and creative abundance in this book (qualities that also mark his stunning young adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, a National Book Award winner) are to be prized. Sherman inhales the inappropriate air of genius and exhales all of these unauthorized poems, right in our face.